Chevrolet Volt Review and Test Drive – Milford Proving Grounds
Chevrolet Volt Review and Test Drive (From a Volt Enthusiast)
We arrived at Milford Proving grounds on just after noon on Wednesday July 14th. The first thing to greet us at the entrance was no less than a pre-production Volt and a transformers yellow Camaro.
I thought to myself, if you were going to visit Detroit, Milford is about the coolest place to be. The weather that day was clear, hot and a little balmy – I would estimate about 92 degrees F at 50-60% humidity. Despite the heat, I was happy with how the weather broke, considering that the day before there was a driving rainstorm and generally cloudy conditions. While I would have preferred a San Francisco summer, I couldn’t complain. It would also be a good excuse to find out how good the air conditioning was in the Volt.
We checked in to security, and unfortunately I found out that we would not be able to take our cameras into Milford Proving Grounds for the Volt test drive. Primarily this was in case we happened to see a 2014 Camaro or Corvette (I did end up seeing some camouflaged cars and some very new looking Corvettes driving around). Nonetheless, they would be bringing the Volts outside of the secured area so that we can touch it, feel it, and take photos and videos.
It was a short wait before we saw two crystal-red Volts roll into the parking lot at security. Keep in mind that no photos of the red Volt had yet been released at the time, so seeing the red rendition of the Volt very striking and novel.
Walking up to the Volt, I had noticed some minor changes since I drove the Volt in San Francisco – a testament to the ongoing development of the Volt and how much engineering, testing and refinement still being put into the car. Notably, the leather seats had changed – instead of being a solid black, they are now two tone beige and black. Also as others have noted before the shifting lever was changed from the full palm shifter that we’ve seen before to a more conventional one, but sharing the same glossy trim. I would find out later that the reason for this change was from feedback that people were jamming their fingers between the shifter and the shifter recess when moving the car into “park”. Check out the video below to get a walk around of the Volt.
There are some interesting details that you can see in the video that I’d like to point out. First was that the Volt’s faux grill is made of a glossy plastic – probably injection molded. Next, the wheels are 17 in polished rims, equipped with 205/55 R17 Goodyear Assurance FuelMax Tires. Although many of us were attached to the 20 in rims on the concept, I found that the 17’s very comfortable looking, and notable. As you approach the trunk section of the car, you can peer inside to see the rear seats that fold flat with the rear center console, creating a very useful cargo area.
In the Volt’s Trunk
It was at this point where I starting talking to the Volt engineering, Trent and Valerie about what was under the floor mat of the trunk compartment.
In the photo, you’ll notice several interesting things. From the left, the 120 Volt 20-foot Charging Cord equipped with the Volt (More on this and the plug in process later). Next, you’ll notice in lieu of a spare tire, there is a 12 volt compressor with a tire repair kit attached to it – an alternative to trying to fit in that spare. Finally in the center you’ll notice a 12 volt standard automotive battery. The intention of the battery is to run the car’s computer to do pre-start up diagnostics and also to power the electronics that will switch on the high voltage battery. You can also still give a jump to anyone who needs it as the terminals are readily accessible through removable plastic tab panel.
Back Seat Comfort
I moved back forward in the car to check out rear seating comfort – as many have asked.
The photo you see is with the driver’s seat in the full – rear position. To give you an idea, I am 6’2” tall, and while in the driver’s seat in the full rear position, I could easily reach all the pedals, but my most comfortable position would probably be one notch ahead of that. The Volt has all manual seat adjustments to reduce on weight and cost. Given that the front seat was in the full rear position, I had a hard time swinging my legs into position behind the front driver’s seat (it was nearly a contortion act). So if you had a tall 6’4” person driving in the front with the seat all the way back, you could probably comfortably fit a person who is perhaps 5’6” at the tallest. A good rule I thumb for that maximum tandem seating height I think would be 12’ total height. Meaning two people who are 6 foot tall sitting tandem (6+6=12) would be comfortable. Keep in mind comfortable in a compact car does not mean the back of your BMW 7 series where you can stretch your legs out, but that you can comfortably sit without any appendage being constrained by anything.
Legroom was the primary factor of comfort concern, the driver’s side headroom is very good and the rear headroom was not of concern to me. I never bumped my head when we actually drove the car later in the day.
The Charge Port
Moving farther forward, we can now look at the charge port door and the way in which that is actuated.
You will notice that the charge port door has a shroud that interfaces with the plug to protect it even when the door panel is closed. The door itself is actuated by a button located on the driver’s side door, ahead of where the window rocker switches are. The door is spring loaded, so a pressing the charge door button releases a latch, and the door springs to the full opened position. The door swings out quickly, but towards the end of its travel, its motion in dampened so that the door does not slam into stop on the other end.
Now that the door is opened, I asked to be able to “plug” in the Volt in. The SAE J1772 plug was light in the hand, as the entire housing was plastic. Sliding the plug in was quick and easy, in the plug the tolerances were a little looser so you didn’t need to line everything up perfectly, but pushing the plug down resulting in a confident snap into place. Releasing the plug was as simple as pulling a trigger release on the bottom of the plug and pulling it out.
Inside – The Center Console
After viewing the charge door, I sat down in the Driver’s seat to get a feeling of ergonomics and placement. It was simple to get in, and the leather seat was firm and supportive. Looking across the dash and center console, there are some interesting things to note.
On the center console, this version was the black version (white is the other option). You’ll note that while the main aesthetics of the car have not changed materially over time – there are same refinements and variations to what the specific buttons do. The buttons on the center console are capacitive touch, which means it detects the presence of your finger when you touch it instead of being triggered when you depress it. There are small finger indentations for you to help find the location of each button. Of course, the beauty of having a capacitive touch panel like this is that you can easily reconfigure the actions of each button, and simple re-etch its icon onto the center console.
Most of the functions are self-explanatory, like a normal car. What’s different of course starts with the Power button. No longer an ignition, the car powers on if when press the power button while depressing the brake pedal. Power up consists of a short audio cue followed by both lcd screens showing a Volt logo animation.
Moving up from the power button you’ll see the Drive Move and Leaf Symbol. The Leaf Symbol Controls what climate mode the car is in (Comfort or Economy) while the Drive mode button toggles between the different driving modes (Normal, Sport and Mountain). Moving to the right, you’ll notice also the lock/unlock buttons on the center console, and tune / volume controls, which are rotary switches with rubber finger grips. I don’t remember clearly but I believe the “tune” rotary switch had detents while the volume switch had no detents in the rotation.
Lastly you’ll notice the said shifter that is now much more traditional. This is a case where ergonomics and user experience trumps aesthetics. While it’s no longer a full palm shifter, I’d have to say the shifting experience was much more familiar and comfortable as you can now easily grip the shifter with your palm and several fingers. The shifting detents and tactile feedback was tight and pretty much like a conventional car with the stops and detents where you expect them.
Inside – The Instrument Panel
Moving onto the main instrument panel, you’ll see the LCD Instrument Panel in the “Off” Position.
The Panel itself is very bright, and easy to see even on the bright summer day it was. The resolution on screen was good. My estimation was that for the 7 inch screen it probably had 800×600 pixels – about the resolution of a good laptop screen, but not for watching HD movies on. Both screens were of similar resolution, and the animations that played were at good frame rates. Much better than the Gen 2 Prius screen, but not quite to the level of a 120hz HD Screen. Think traditional movie of 24 frames / second. It was smooth but not silk.
Under the Hood
Stepping out of the car, I stepped forward to finally see what was under the hood of the Volt. You can see a good view of this in the video below, as well as a higher res photo.
The first thing to notice is the presence of three separate tanks for coolant. One on the far left for the internal combustion engine, and two in the front near the grille for the Power Electronics and the battery. Each component, engine, battery, and power electronics has its own separate cooling loop. (You’ll notice that the tubing to the engine coolant is much heavier duty than the electronics coolant). The engine air filter sits on the left between the coolant tank and the engine block. The engine block itself without surprise sits right in the middle. That assembly looks conventional, with easy access dipstick and oil fill cap. You will note that the cap says 5W-30 Oil, which is very typical for smaller engines.
While I did not get a very clear view in this very tightly packaged engine compartment, I did not notice any separate belts for the engine. No surprise as the whole car needs to operate without the engine being on. Trent also mentioned that the Gasoline Engine and Generator were part of the same assembly.
Moving right you’ll notice the DOT3 brake fluid reservoir and in front of it, the power electronics / traction motor unit. You can’t see too much from here other than the many orange power cables going to the power electronics assembly.
I managed to get a couple videos where Trent was describing some of the features under the hood. You can view those below.
After this we paused for a quick photo op, with Elena and I, and then we packed up, ready to drive out to the secured part of Milford proving grounds.
At this point, we had to stow our camera equipment, so you’ll have to imagine without visual aids the rest of the driving experience.
I jumped into the shotgun seat of one of the two Volts, and Valerie proceeded to drive us inside Milford proving grounds to the Ride and Handling Loop where we would be driving the Volt. Remember the “Hot” Day that I mentioned? Well this quickly became evident as we pulled away as the Volt had 30 minutes or so to bake the Michigan heat. Sitting in the front, I was able to play with all of the center console controls.
Cabin Air Conditioning
First, the air conditioning – there are two capacitive touch buttons under the actually display to control fan speed and temperature. I toggled it down to 68 degrees and maxed out the fan speed. Cool air came pouring into the cabin, but something seemed wrong, it wasn’t really enough volume of cold air to cool the cabin. It helped, but wasn’t adequate for the Michigan summer. Valerie then pointed out and corrected this – as I noticed that we were in “Economy” Mode, which basically limited the power available to the cabin cooling system by capping out the blower speed and consequently the cooling power available to the cabin. With one press of the “Leaf” Button, we were into Comfort Mode, and instantly the blower fans went up to full power – blasting me with a torrent of chilled air – Much Better! Quickly the cabin became comfortable despite the 92 degree summer day, and I eventually turned down the fan speed as it was no longer needed.
Comfort taken care of, I proceeded to play with the on board sound system and radio. The radio interface was simple and straightforward, clean but not pretentious. I found the “90’s Channel” On XM radio and turned out the volume. I believe, but didn’t confirm whether the speaker system in the car was Bose. The sound that came out of the speakers was clean and generally decently equalized. To give you some perspective, think Bose “Wave Radio”. It was better than average, but not audiophile or Bass Thumping quality – above par for factory equipment.
Infotainment and Energy Usage
Next, I experimented with the center console “infotainment” display. I was able to bring up the “Power usage monitoring and watched it as we drove around” The home screen for power usage showed a diagram of the Voltec Drive train, and where power was flowing, much like the Prius screen does. Notably, the animation quality was much better, and the screens were crisp. The buttons on the screen were comfortably sized, though very simple in its implementation. Most on screen buttons were a rounded outline on high contract black with text in it. Not like the mobile phone icons you might be familiar with, but I suspect this has to do with a tradeoff between easy readability and aesthetics. Likewise, when you pressed the button, there was a slight noticeable delay before the button would highlight and actually trigger the action with an audio cue for response. That delay was probably about a quarter to half second. I later found that the reason for this was not a technology constraint, but rather adding in that latency helps prevent inadvertent presses and that was a usability decision. Personally, I prefer crisper button actions, but I’m sure the guy wearing his glove in an area where winter actually gets cold would appreciate this.
One thing I noticed right away on the energy usage screen was that when we had placed the car into “comfort” mod with air conditioning at full blast, the estimated electrical range dropped from 40 miles to 32 miles. This may give you an idea of what to expect depending on your accessory load. After watching the true mileage for a while, the estimator tool seemed to be fairly accurate.
I paused quickly to look up as we drove past the Hybrid Vehicle lab, where about 20-30 Volts in varying states of build (from the Cruze-Volts to the Early Iv’ers) were parked under an awning receiving electrical charge. Very cool and interesting to see the work GM is still doing using the engineering builds.
The Test Drive
After 10 or so minutes, we arrived at the start of the Ride and Handling Track at Milford Proving Grounds, which is a 4 mile loop with all sorts of road conditions built into it, from chatterboxes, permanently slick roads, simulated railroad tracks, very deep bumps and potholes etc. Knowing that the Volt still had substantial electrical charge, I opted to drive last, so as to get a chance to drive with the charge depleted. (Fortunately for me the hot day and the air conditioning on full blast helped eat up that charge faster)
For the first several laps, I sat in the backseat of the Volt, behind the driver. As I mentioned before, rear seat comfort is primarily a function of the combined height of driver and passenger riding behind. As the drivers sitting in front of me were generally under 5 ‘9” I did fine in the back. Headroom was fine and I had a place for my legs that was not in the back of the driver’s seat. As the other drivers took their first laps around I made note of the things I would do when I got behind the wheel. About 40 minutes later, we switched and I got behind the driver’s seat of the Volt.
Stepping in was a more familiar feeling this time – as you might already know, I got a chance to drive it in San Francisco, so this time it was not altogether new. First I adjusted the seat to my comfort position, one notch from the farthest travel back. Next, I adjusted the review view center mirror, and found to my pleasant surprise that rear visibility was very good because of the extra glass in the hatchback assembly. Side window visibility was also good and front visibility unimpeded.
I set the car into reverse and saw the backup camera view appear on the center console display. The implementation was very backup camera standard, with a decent view and colored distance hash marks showing how close you were to anything behind you. Additionally if you got close to anything, a warning icon would appear on the screen and an audible beep would alert you to your proximity to another object. The beep become faster as you approached something – in this case another car parked at the start of the handling track.
Shifting it into drive, I pulled away from the lot, stopped the stop sign right before the entry to the ride and handling loop. I swung the Volt slowly around the corner, gingerly pressed on the brake to bring it to a near stop, and then pushed the pedal to the floor. Without hesitation, the Volt pushed us into the back of our seats with a constant G Force. 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 56, 60, 65, 70 – During the middle of the acceleration Valerie help me toggle the Volt into Sport mode, and sure enough about another 20% power was unlocked, giving you a little extra spirit all the way along. I didn’t time it, but compared to other cars I’ve driven, the 0-60 felt like it was around 8-9 seconds as advertised. It was quicker than a 4 cylinder compact car (Unless you have a turbo), and probably just a hair less than a new model V-6 sedan that makes over 220 Hp. This was with a 3800 lb car + a full passenger load of 4 normal sized adults.
The acceleration profile of the Volt of course was very different than a typical gas powered car. With all the torque at the beginning and no gear shifts, you were basically pushed into your seat for the first 3-5 seconds of the acceleration without relent -unlike a traditional gas car that gets more torque at high rpms. There was a noticeable power fade around 45-50 MPH even with your foot all the way down, where the feeling that you were getting pushed into the back of your seat eased. (This corroborates with the information that the peak power was engineered to be around 48 mph). The acceleration loss was noticeable, but not huge. It seemed like perhaps 20-25% less than in the 0-40 mph range.
Once up to full speed, I did some “passing speed” behavior to the extent that the course and the test engineer would let me. When I accelerating from 50 to 65 mph and 55 to 70 mph, the passing acceleration performance overall now felt more like a normal car, but without the downshift and sudden speed boost. Definitely adequate for highway driving and you’d be able to overtake a slower driving car with ease, but in this regard, not as exciting as to 0-45 where you were actually pushed into your seat. Short summary on acceleration, fantastic for freeway onramps, adequate for passing speeds, where adequate is performance similar to a typical 4 cylinder compact car at highway speeds.
Coming out of the first stretch, we now entered the stretch of road meant to simulate different road conditions, like sudden bumps, big dips in the road etc. Here is where I could get the best evaluation of the ride of the car. Having driven many different compact and mid-size sedans of varying brands, the closest I would pin the overall ride quality of the Volt would be a shorter wheel-based Ford Fusion. It definitely rode more like a mid-sized car than a compact car, undoubtedly due to the increased weight of the vehicle. It did not really seem to “bounce” over the bumps and dips and compact Corolla and Civics often feel like, but rather rode through them with the suspension taking the brunt of the hit. Compared to other midsized cars, like the Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry, Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion, it was closest to a new Fusion. Whereas the ride on the Camry and Malibu was a little softer and the Sonata just a little less refined, the Fusion has a firmer ride to it, but overall is still tuned for comfort. It absorbed small bumps very well, but the larger bumps you would feel a little bit more of it. Never did I really feel in the handling loop that I would bottom out the suspension though. Because of the shorter wheelbase, the pitching of the car felt more compact than mid-sized, as you’d notice pitching a little bit more going over, and recovering from a bump more so than a mid-size vehicle.
I now entered into the handling portion of the loop, where curves of varying radiuses appeared before me. You might have noted in my previous review how the steering feel was, but as a reminder, the steering was power assisted to a level typical for most cars. Not loose feeling, but not race car like either where you can really feel the road. This element as well seemed primarily designed for comfort over performance.
Turning into the corners, you felt very little initial body lean – but as I took progressively aggressive corners at 50 mph, you eventually fell the suspension give way to some body lean. To get this feeling, I was taking corners at above normal driving speeds, but not racing fast. (I was doing 50 mph in a 40 mph suggested corner). This gave me much better perspective than the parking lot ride I did since I could not feel the car handle at highway speeds. The body lean at higher speed and tighter corners was a little dose of reality. I guess there isn’t much you can do you compensate for the loads you are putting into the suspension of an already fairly heavy, and loaded down Volt. Compared to other cars in the category I thought that this part – again was average. A well tuned mid size like the fusion felt a little better (lighter) in the corners. It’s the price you pay for the weight of all the electronics/battery on board.
I’ll echo from the previous review that one positive aspect of the low CG of the Volt was that the body lean never went so far as to feel like you were going to lose traction. So the Volt stayed confidently planted on the ground, even while you did notice that bit of body lean. So this aspect of the car helped compensate a good deal for the increased weight.
Braking performance on the Volt was excellent. Not only could you not tell whether the car was regenerative braking or disc braking (except for the feedback on the instrument panel telling you that you are braking inefficiently) but the stopping performance was great. If you slammed on the brakes, it was responsive and fast, especially given the weight of the car. 4 wheel disc brakes no doubt help out here, along with very careful calibration and performance merging between regenerative and friction braking.
In the last segment of the ride and handling loop we drove across a chatterbox / permanently slick surface as well as some simulated railroad tracks. This is where the weight of the vehicle actually helped pick up the terrain of the road. For small road disturbances like small bumps and railroad tracks, the suspension absorbed the road very well, and you didn’t get the feeling of getting bounced around. At higher speeds you can feel the car fishtailing a little on the super slick chatterbox surface, but nothing alarming.
Mountain Mode and Charge Sustaining Mode
I came around for my second lap, with the intention of seeing how the Volt drove in charge sustaining and mountain mode. Starting the lap, I noticed that there was about 6 miles left of electric range, so I figured this would be in the territory where mountain mode would force the generator on. With three presses of the “Drive Mode” button, I was into mountain mode. The first press always sets the default to normal mode, the second to sport, and the third sequential puts it in mountain mode. With the mode change the engine roared to life, the range indicator switched to gas, and I was driving in Mountain Mode. This transition was more aggressive than others have described in normal mode as the engine is quickly spooling up to start recovering charge, instead of transitioning over very gently to an idle 800-1000 rpm.
I estimated that while cruising, the engine ran at about 3000 rpm as it was trying to recover to the higher charge point during normal driving. If you pressed hard on the accelerator, the engine would increase its speed up to 4000 or so rpm, giving you some familiarity with the fact that you’ve mashed the pedal. In that sense the engine reacted very much like a typical car would. It was clear that the engineers were trying to do some simulation between pedal input and engine rpm, as well as the fact of course that you are demanding more power.
As soon as you eased off the pedal, the engine would gradually spool back down to 3000 rpm, giving you some feedback that yes, indeed you’ve pulled off the gas pedal. This affirmation in my mind was quite useful as it gave you some feedback that your car wasn’t about to “run away”. Imagine if you removed your foot from the pedal and the engine did not give some feedback. That would likely be a jarring and confusing situation. Though the engine of course didn’t spool back to lower rpm, the fact that it reduced rpms and noise gave you some confidence that your input was being acknowledged.
All the time, there was no difference at all in driving performance. I found out earlier that day why that was the case from Andrew Farah, who described the control logic loop. Basically what happens is that the computer detects your pedal position, that logic loop then send a signal to the power electronics on controlling the traction motor, the power electronics on the traction motor then sends a signal to the engine controller, which determines based on the current draw and current drive mode what engine rpm to put out. The engine and battery are on a common DC bus. So basically your foot controls what the traction motors demands, and it doesn’t care whether it’s getting juice from the battery or the gas engine directly. It’s then up to the gas engine to best estimate how much power to put out to either deliver the needed power to the drive motor or to charge the battery.
Satisfied with the mountain mode experience, I toggled modes back to normal, and the engine spooled down eventually shutting off, leaving me back in normal drive mode with 6 miles of charge still remaining. Eventually I got to experience the normal transition from electric to gas, which as people have described before was totally seamless. You could not sense any vibration as the gas engine game online and with the tire noise at 30-40 mph, you can hardly hear the gas engine if you are just cruising around. I noticed that the gas engine typically stayed around 1200-1600 rpm if you were just cruising around at 40-60 mph on flat terrain, with the AC on pretty hard. For normal, non aggressive, non hill climbing driving, the gas engine for the most part was out of the way. You could hear it, but it was a dull drone with no perceptible vibration in the cabin. Once again, there was no difference at all in driving under those conditions.
As I finished the last lap and pulled into the parking lot, I had to do my favorite thing, pull the pedestrian alert lever. (I think I’ll be doing that a lot when I buy a Volt)
MPGs in Charge Sustaining Mode
Since you’ve read this far, I’ll give you what I saw as the MPGs in charge sustaining mode. Basically, I watched the energy display over a period of time. In total, during our drive we used 0.40 gallons of gasoline. In that period of time, the estimated miles on gas resulted in an MPG measure varying between 30 and 40 mpg. Keep in mind; this is with the AC on full blast, us driving inefficiently and also an unknown amount of extra charge that was put into the battery from using mountain mode for part of the drive. Of course, given the sample size of actual gasoline used – you’ll have to take this with a grain of salt. However, I suspect that you can get 50 mpg if you are not using air conditioning, and driving conservatively.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the full review of a Chevrolet Volt from a Chevy Volt Enthusiast! Please let me know if you liked it by leaving a comment – or if there is a specific topic I missed also leave a note and I’ll answer to the best of my ability. Also if you’re ever in Detroit, make sure to stop by the Volt Bar